Feng shui for the obsessive soul


Saturday, Nov 13, 2004

The Chinese Art of Placement

Written by Stanley Rutherford

Directed by Rusty Owen

Performed by Stephen Najera

At the Alley Theatre Workshop

In Toronto

Rating: **½

"Be careful where you put that chair" may not have made it into the Ten Commandments, but for believers of feng shui and the holy army of home decorators on HGTV, it's a sacred admonition.

For Sparky Litman (Stephen Najera), the former poet at the centre of Stanley Rutherford's The Chinese Art of Placement, it's the latest in a string of obsessions that have marked his life.

A select list of these obsessions would include Tina Turner, poetry, masturbation (and poetry as masturbation), ants and tall tales from the Cold War. If you were invited to a party by Sparky at the last minute, would you go? No? Neither will anyone he's called periodically over the course of this 90-minute, one-person show that marks the inaugural production of Alley Theatre Workshop at its new performance space within the Lennox Art Gallery just off Toronto's Queen Street West.

The company has a welcome mandate to open a new line of communications between Toronto and New York, particularly in the area of performance art and one-person shows.

Its artistic director, Michael Kash, divides his time between the two cities, and his most memorable performance here was in Eric Bogosian's Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead, a tour-de-force turn I still recall as a theatrical highlight of 2001, when I first saw it.

As far as I can tell, this is the Toronto debut of Najera, a native Texan who makes his home in New York. He is a warm, endearing and surprising performer, if not quite of the magnetic stature of Kash.

As he begins The Chinese Art of Placement -- barefoot, in pajama pants and a blue T-shirt -- he gives the impression that his performance will follow in the grand old tradition (read: tired and dull) of observational humour. Having established the significance of feng shui, Najera leads us up that garden path of the Comedy Network with his confessions as a repentant poet who has recovered his sanity, but lost his sexual libido, when he gave up poetry.

Rutherford, however, has more in mind for Sparky. As the evening progresses, the character becomes a cipher for the kind of disintegration in American society where mistrust and isolation define the human experience, and for a political schism where similar qualities play out on a larger scale. While Najera leaves no doubt that Sparky's upbringing among "unhappy, scared, terrified, lost little people" has caused him to become the recluse he is, his take on Sparky's stories from the Cold War are more ambiguous: fantasies, daydreams?

The veracity of the stories ultimately don't matter as much as the conviction of the performer. Director Rusty Owen guides Najera well in a role that calls on him to be Tom Hanks in one scene and Antonin Artaud in the next.

But neither can really solve the major problem in Rutherford's script: Even at 90 minutes, it feels overextended by a good 30. The Chinese Art of Placement comes across as a checklist of obsessions and tangents rather than an organically growing script. Najera himself shows no signs of flagging as a performer, but his material certainly does. This leads to a curious, intermittently brilliant performance piece, but one that disappoints as much as it rewards.

And finally, not to sound as obsessive as Sparky with the placement of chairs, but it might be a good idea to figure out how to organize audience seats in this small, new theatre where poor sightlines are a major problem. It doesn't take a feng-shui expert to figure that out.


The Chinese Art of Placement continues at Toronto's Alley Theatre Workshop until Nov. 28 (416-703-9211)

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